'Person of Interest' Bosses Talk Major Death, Team Fallout and Reese Unhinged (Q&A)
"We knew from the beginning that we had to punish ourselves and the audience by losing more and more castmembers," executive producer Jonathan Nolan tells THR following Tuesday's game-changer.
[Warning: Major spoilers ahead from Tuesday's episode, "The Crossing."]
Person of Interest just bid farewell to a core member of the team.
Tuesday's episode, "The Crossing," was billed as the second part in a three-episode trilogy with the warning that one of the main players on the CBS drama would not be making it out alive. And boy, did they keep that promise, with Taraji P. Henson's Det. Carter suffering a fatal gunshot in the midst of Reese's battle against the powerful and corrupt organization, HR.
On Wednesday, executive producers Jonathan Nolan and Greg Plageman talked to The Hollywood Reporter about the decision to kill off a central character, the unscripted Reese/Carter kiss and the likelihood of Henson returning.
Were you surprised by the reaction to last night's episode?
Greg Plageman: Yeah, we always knew there would be a certain amount of trauma inflicted on our audience in terms of the loss of one of our central characters. It's a bargain everyone makes. They all signed up for the show. We knew where we wanted to go. We wanted to be that kind of show, and we felt like this is a show that continuously moves forward. The overall arc of the show is something we were always excited about. In order for the stakes to feel real on the show and embrace that element of life, there had to be an element of loss. We seized the opportunity for the show to continually evolve in different places and for all our characters.
What prompted the decision to kill off a character who has been on the show since the very beginning?
Jonathan Nolan: It wasn't a question of any prompting, so much as our commitment at the beginning to keep shaking it up. We have no interest -- and I never had any interest -- in making a conventional TV procedural. There's nothing wrong with the word "procedural" -- our show is a procedural, or often there is a case of the week and a self-contained story that people can invest in a beginning, middle and end. But also, a bigger tectonic mythology that is moving and going places. When you come up with foes as formidable as those played by Robert John Burke (Simmons) and Clarke Peters (Quinn) over the course of three seasons, you don't want them to go down without a fight. We knew from the beginning that we had to punish ourselves and the audience by losing more and more castmembers.
We looked at the run of the HR story here and we felt it was time to bring it to the climax, so I sat down with Taraji earlier in the year and we talked through what we were cooking up. It was a bittersweet conversation, because we love working with her and vice versa. It's been a great creative collaboration. As sad as we were to see her go, I think we were all excited -- Taraji, us and the writers -- to get into a juicy piece of material, to tell a tragedy. I don't know why humans like stories that involve death and misfortune; these are the stories that we're drawn to again and again. Speaking for myself as an audience member, I love when a show can shock, so we've been building toward this now for the better part of a year. It's incredibly satisfying to collaborate with an actor toward this end. It's been a really cool experience.
When was that first conversation that you had for a character to die?
Nolan: From the beginning. When we cast all of these roles, we said, "Rent, don't buy in New York," because we wanted to tell a story with real stakes. In terms of specifics with Taraji, I sat down with her earlier in the year back in January or February. Or even longer than that. It's been in the works for a while.
What was the reasoning behind having Carter be the one to die? Were there other serious candidates?
Nolan: Yeah, absolutely, but we felt that Carter's connection to police corruption from the pilot onward -- this is one of the themes of our show, the enemy within -- from the very beginning, it was the story of her realizing that she's surrounded by people that she thought she knew but she didn't, and the real allies were the two weird vigilantes she's been chasing. For this story -- HR, police corruption -- it was a natural boiling point that would put her first and foremost into focus. And frankly, as writers, we've long said that Carter was the heart of the show, and your perverse impulse as a writer (laughs) is to do as much damage to the audience as possible. There's nothing more dastardly than -- if Carter's the heart of the show -- breaking that heart for the audience in the middle of the season.
How did you settle on how Carter died (by Simmons' gunshot)? Were there other alternatives?
Nolan: In terms of the episode itself, for the writers, we had dug in from the beginning in terms of going for maximum impact, giving the characters a real sense of victory and triumph but also coupling it to an inevitable sense that triumph never comes without loss. We always talked about this three-episode arc, one in which, on a more mechanical level, the audience has seen it all before, so the game you're playing with the audience is trying to keep it as fresh for them as possible, to keep them at the edge of their seats. One of the things Greg and I are proudest of this morning is the fact that the amount of people we're talking to and fan reaction -- being truly shocked at what happened, but also spending a significant amount of time in last night's episode believing that Fusco might die, that Reese might die, that Finch might die, that Bear the dog might die.
Plageman: Like that Jack London story, Bear will be the last one standing.
Carter's death came after she shared a nice moment with Reese, where they revealed their true feelings. Had she not died, had you thought about where their relationship might have gone?
Plageman: We've always felt the show could go there, but we always wanted it to be organic, and the most interesting thing that emerged in last night's episode was that the kiss was not scripted. We never wrote it in. However you would characterize the relationship between these two characters up to this point, platonic or something deeper, that was never in question. It was intended to be a scene in which Reese and Carter both understood that what they were undertaking was life-harrowing and that this may or may not be the last time they'd see each other. That was always in there. What was surprising to us was where they went with it. It wasn't in every take; there were takes where they didn't do it and there were takes where they did. When we heard about it on the set, everybody on the show was like, "Oh no," because we knew we might have to go there. You see it in Carter's eyes, an element of surprise and natural feedback that she gives in that moment that it did seem earned. When we took [that scene] out and watched it, we felt like we missed it. We felt it deepened the level of their relationship in a way that we felt had we not gone there it would kind of be chicken shit.
What are the chances that Taraji will be back, perhaps in flashback?
Nolan: Absolutely. It's been a pleasure to work with Taraji, and selfishly we are going to insist that she come back and hang out with us again. We'll be itching to get Taraji back into an episode of our show just as soon as we can. Also, we're excited to see what she does next. She's a magnificent actor.
Where does the next episode kick off?
Plageman: Officer Simmons' number comes up, and it's not a question of if he's going to get it, it's a question of which character is going to do it. It's a darker chapter, and it's one of the most powerful. This loss is going to be something that isn't going to be easily glossed over between our characters, particularly between Reese and Finch and the understanding of how the Machine works. It's something we want to explore in this episode and in a few others in terms of what the Machine is capable of. And in the second half of the season, we have an opportunity to tell a larger story about the Machine.
How does losing a core member of the team change how Reese and Co. go about things?
Nolan: Definitely there's some fallout. Half the fun of writing the arc is writing the episode after, in which the characters deal with it. If you get them into a comfortable place, you have to shake them out of that. How do you pick up the pieces and move on from this in this undertaking Finch has gotten them into, where they fight the inevitable? It's just a matter of how much they're willing to do and how much they're willing to sacrifice. They're going to have to find a new way to work with each other because Reese's concerns over what the f--- [they're] doing here if they can't even save their closest friend and ally.
Does guilt play into it at all?
Nolan: It's a good question. Harold Finch has dealt with this burden from the very first moment when he understood what these numbers meant. He experienced loss in his friend in Nathan Ingram (Brett Cullen), and that mantle is transferred to him. Now it becomes a point of conflict for Finch and Reese, who's his best friend now, how is he dealing with the fact that he didn't save Detective Carter?
Carter's death is the catalyst for the rest of the season and beyond?
Nolan: Absolutely. The problem with their enemies is that they don't sleep on it. They're still a huge threat. Reverberations and possibly puppies! (Laughs.) Circle of life.
Person of Interest airs Tuesdays at 10 p.m. on CBS.